Sundance Features

January 20, 2007

Jason Kohn, Manda Bala

"This is one of those movies, you know, I sold my car to make. All that typical bullshit, you know?"

A scene from the frog farm in Jason Kohn's doc Manda Bala

(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)

So what can you tell me about Manda Bala?

The film is really about kidnapping and corruption in Brazil, or the way that large-scale political corruption affects Brazilian society. But more specifically, it's a story of a frog farm that was at the center of a $2 billion political corruption scandal and a girl who was kidnapped, got both of her ears cut off. And the plastic surgeon who reconstructs ears and started a cottage industry out of this because of how many people who have had their ears cut off and reconstructed. And kind of the huge security industry that's grown in Sao Paulo, Brazil, over the last five to 10 years. On the kidnapping side, it's more of an impressionistic look at kidnapping from many different angles, whereas on the corruption side, it's this one story -- this one archetypal politician who steals a fuckload of money. And the relationship between the two.

Legend has it you were working with Errol Morris and you were 23 when you split to do this film. True?

I was an assistant researcher my senior year in college, and I spent another year at Errol's office. I've been working on this film for five years; I just turned 28 two days ago.

So what inspired you to cut loose from something relatively secure with such a legend and take this on?

I worked for Errol because he was my favorite filmmaker; I worked my ass off interning through college to get into his office. A lot of the kids you usually takes are Harvard people, and I worked hard just to get in his office. And once I was there, it was awesome just being around and listening to him. Literally -- when I say "listening to him," I mean sitting at my desk and listening to every single thing the guy ever said. Because he's unbelievably brilliant. And I learned a lot, but it's not making your own movies. And if you want to make your own movies -- even if you work for your favorite filmmaker -- it's not the same. No matter how high you get on the ladder or how many years you work there, you're still only helping someone make his movies. That was never a goal of mine.

But Errol was so fundamental in making Manda Bala, because I was looking for a movie to make -- for years. I went down to Brazil, and my dad, who lives down there, had told me about this frog farm. I went there with a camcorder and it was beautiful -- it was crazy. The guy there was very, very nice, but obviously a little bit involved in something that he wasn't quite clear about. I came back and cut together a little thing and showed it to Errol; he thought it was awesome. It was with Errol's blessing that I left the office, and if he hadn't been supportive at that moment it probably wouldn't have happened. Since that moment -- I decided to shoot it on film. For Errol, that was also a big deal because a lot of people go out to make "Errol-style" documentaries, just to catch "kooky" characters. But that's not an "Errol-style" movie; an "Errol-style" movie is based in the production level -- he literally, physically makes movies differently than other people. Part of the decision to shoot it on film in CinemaScope was kind of embracing the way that Errol makes movies physically, which are demanding and expensive. It's one of the things he really appreciated in the project early on and one of the reasons he's been so supportive since the beginning.

You --

Did that answer your question at all? That was a shitty answer, wasn't it?

Yeah, Jesus Christ. Let's start over.

You've seen The Fog of War, right?


You know where MacNamara says, "Never answer the questions that you're asked; only answer the ones you wish you had been asked"? The fact is that I don't know what I want to be asked. I'm new to this.

You're doing fine. But in the idea of filming what sounds like a political documentary in Brazil, there are a couple different levels of preparation and apprehension that you have to navigate. The physical threat alone --especially for an American filmmaker -- against making that type of documentary must be pretty severe.

I don't really think of this as a "political documentary," because it's not journalistic. I kind of think of this as a non-fiction science-fiction movie. It's very much about a broken society, and using these two really weird, crazy stories to explore that broken society. My Mom is Brazilian, my Dad lives down there. A political documentary, to me, seems more along the lines of what would be an activist documentary attempting to affect change. But that wasn't really the point of this movie. This was about telling these two crazy stories and making sense out of them, and the way by which we did it was to use the story of a politician. That's one of the stories in the movie, and it's just as much a political documentary as it is a kidnapper documentary. There's a kidnapper in there, and both of them are treated with equal weight in the end.

How are you preparing for people's reactions to the film?

I'm scared shitless. I've never done this before. The first day of production was the first time I had ever touched a 16mm camera. I'm very, very nervous, as a matter of fact. This has been extraordinarily exciting, but Jesus, man. I'm very, very worried, because all I wanted was to entertain people. I wanted this to be an entertaining movie. Part of this project was continuing something that Errol started in 1980 with Gates of Heaven, which was just treating documentaries like a genre of cinema rather than as a separate storytelling form -- without using all the conceits of a typical documentary, which is content outweighing style. That's a journalistic tradition, and it's fine. But Errol made movies that were in line with a certain tradition -- an awesome tradition -- and a lot of times in documentaries, they're immediately pigeonholed by their content. And I just think it's lazy -- not on the point of view of the viewer or the critic, but that of the filmmaker.

A lot of making this movie was fighting this current trend of contemporary documentary: movies that are made very quickly and cheaply that don't fall within the tradition of cinema and belong to the tradition of television documentaries. Which is a fucking great tradition in and of itself, but I think there's marketing problem in there. It's a new market and people haven't really figured it out so well yet. I could talk about this stuff for hours. I know I keep going way off your questions.

Dude, this is great. You come to Sundance with no festival experience as a filmmaker, but there is the whole market angle in bringing a competition feature to the festival. What kind of advice and counsel have you received on both levels?

I've been stupid lucky with this film. Honestly, it's been a very long process, it's been five years; I nailed all the indie filmmaking clich├ęs except for extraordinary credit card debt. But all of the fighting and all of the years... I mean, my investor tried to fire me. All of that typical stuff that goes into making a very, very hard movie over a long period of time. But I met somebody from Cinetic years ago. It was a total coincidence that one of the young guys from Cinetic fell into my editing room three years ago -- this is my first editor, the first of three. We got picked up by Cinetic years ago -- we were trying to get into Sundance 2003, just to give you an idea. The movie was never ready. There was more shooting, more trips to Brazil and all that. Most of the sales strategy and stuff I try not to think about so much.

It's hard, because you want to make some money. You work so hard just to be able to keep working; you pay to work for so long. This is one of those movies, you know, I sold my car to make. All that typical bullshit, you know? So it's nice that there are people who are worried about it and have a stake in it, and obviously I'd like to be able to make some money, but more than anything I think that making a first film is almost always more about making a second film. At least for me. All I want to be able to do is make another one.

Every Sundance filmmaker has that next feature they want to do. I presume you have yours ready?

I don't have a script or anything so packaged, but yeah. There are five or six different movies I'd like to make. Not documentaries -- all (fiction) features.

So is this documentary a kind of springboard or is it a story you thought had to be told?

No, no -- I hate that. No fucking way. I honestly don't believe that -- "stories that had to be told." There are so many stories in the world. So many stories. Starting off this project, at that time, I remember I spent every single Saturday morning in Boston going to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, probably 9 or 10 o'clock in the morning, watching every single Frederick Wiseman movie ever made. There was a retrospective that lasted a few months, right? Now, Frederick Wiseman is brilliant, but there's no story. He makes movies about process. He has a body of work that can only be understood as this huge document of American institutions. And I thought it was the most moving thing in the entire world. So when I started this, I was like, "There's a frog farm, and there's a corruption story in there. But isn't a frog farm kind of crazy and beautiful? And shouldn't people know about a frog farm?" I had no idea frog farms existed. And this happened to be a good place to do some beautiful cinematography. And then there's this plastic surgeon who reconstructs ears out of human ribs. There were no stories there --they were, at best, themes. Maybe metaphors? Things that could be expanded into other things?

I spent five years chasing a story -- trying to find out how to make it a story. And it took five years to actually form the story, which was one of the last things that came into the movie. And I think a lot of documentaries are made like that. Features, you have the advantage of being able to create the story first. I know for sure that Errol makes movies like that: He takes a subject and then finds the story. That's why it's so hard to make these kinds of movies. If you are having somebody tell the story of their life in an on-camera interview, I guess you have a story that needs to be told, or whatever that means.

But I don't know -- the movie tradition is more about creating stories and not plucking them out of the ether as if they needed to be told. It's a really romantic idea that I don't really buy into. Does that sound too cynical?

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Argentino Mother Fucker...

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